What does climate change mean?
Humans need three essential things to survive: water, food, and shelter. But what if the shelter is not enough? This was the harrowing fatal result for over 160 people in Oregon and Washington during the unprecedented Pacific Northwest heat wave of 2021. A year later, Ariel Wittenberg recaps the event and the efforts to prevent another tragedy. for E&E News, then reprinted in the Scientific American.
To set the stage, in June of 2021, a heat wave struck through the US Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. High temperatures in Portland during that time of year are usually 70 degrees, but during that heat wave, temperatures reached 110 degrees.
“In the most realistic statistical analysis the event is estimated to be about a 1 in 1000 year event in today’s climate.” — World Weather Attribution publication, “Rapid attribution analysis of the extraordinary heatwave on the Pacific Coast of the US and Canada June 2021”
The World Weather Attribution also stated such an event was impossible without the intervention of human-caused climate change. From what we learned in class, climate change led to an increase in average temperature worldwide. The ozone layer is designed to let in more heat energy in the form of radiation than it releases. According to NASA article, “Is the ozone hole causing climate change?”, “Human activities effectively punched a hole in it, through the use of gases like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in spray cans and refrigerants, which break down ozone molecules in the upper atmosphere.” This is one other cause of global warming. The other cause is the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere with the burning of fossil fuels. As discussed in our lectures, airborne CO2, released from burning fossil fuels, traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere instead of allowing it to be released into space.
So how does this cause heat waves? The prevailing theory is that as the average temperature increases, so do the instances of heat waves reaching extreme temperatures.
https://i0.wp.com/yaleclimateconnections.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/0619_2017SummerHeat_BellCurve.gif?resize=600%2C338&ssl=1 animation of how increasing average temperatures leads to more cases of extreme heat.
So in “Deadly Heat Wave’s Lesson: ‘This Is the Future We All Face’”, the article starts with the desperate measures taken at Portland, organized by Emergency Management Director Jonna Papaefthimiou.
“Oh, eff, this is what climate change does. This is the future we all face.” — Jonna Papaefthimiou
Portland had jury-rigged misting systems, stadium shelters kept open through the night, and the hundreds of calls Papaefthimiou and her staff made to subsidized housing managers requesting them to check on elderly residents.
The article gives graphic descriptions of the ravages of the heat wave. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during May and June of 2021, 3,504 people across the Pacific Northwest went to emergency rooms for heat-related illnesses.
On June 28, the peak of the heat wave, there were some 2,779 emergency room visits for heat-related illnesses.
“Our response was stymied by the fact that the infrastructure in our city has been built, essentially, to retain heat because environmental heat is an anomaly,” — Emergency Planning Coordinator Lucia Schmit
High temperatures were not a consideration in designing the city. As temperatures have spiked in previously cool locations, residences and communities have been unable to cope. A large number of residences in Seattle do not have air conditioning. Even schools and other city property do not have air conditioning because it was not a necessity when they were built. Across the the PNW area, cooling shelters were being placed. The challenge came in having locations suitable for different people with different needs.
Despite this, Papaefthimiou considered the cooling shelters underutilized. She suggested that there was a lack of understanding of the threat high heat posed.
“The people who passed away mostly did not seek help, as far as we know, they just thought that they would stay home and be OK and nobody checked on them. It was a failure of our entire community.” — Jonna Papaefthimiou
Measures have been taken to spread awareness such as city messaging to not only warn of the dangers of high heat, but also to check in on neighbors and family members who may need help. In addition, the city will use the National Weather Service’s wireless emergency alerts to text cellphones information on how to stay cool.
Notably, Papaefthimiou was concerned about low income or homeless citizens who may lack the education to understand the severity of heat. In addition, she believed many did not seek help because they did not want to spend money on bus fares to cooling shelters. To alleviate these issues, the city waived bus fares when travelling to cooling shelters during emergency heat events.
“Right now we do not have a good system to alert folks about what they are experiencing in their homes — which can often be hotter than the outdoor temperatures.” — Vivek Shandas, director of the Sustaining Urban Places Research Lab at Portland University
Another thing to note is that steps are being taken to monitor heat levels inside buildings and hallways. In addition, steps are being taken to subsidize cooling units and increase their accessibility. The “Heating and Cooling Relief Act” barred Homeowner’s Associations and landlords from preventing residents from getting air conditioning units as well.
While I believe in improving systems to have better access to cooling, I think that this reactive action will have people slip through the cracks such as the hundreds who died in the PNW heat wave last year. Every life is precious so it is important these efforts remain, but as of right now, cities and communities pay the cost of corporate greed. The effects are long-reaching and not always direct, but the results are nothing less than disastrous if corporations are allowed to continue their use of fossil fuels.